In the early morning hours before the sun came up a few of my anxious platoon mates and I could see the faint outline of the coast far ahead on the horizon. The familiar and distinctive cliffs of Point Loma and the lighthouse with the same name marked the entrance to San Diego Bay. The hum of the giant diesel engines deep within the body of our home for the last six months reverberated through the steel hull and I could feel tingle of it in the soles of my jungle boots. Ships and sailors grow an affinity for each other over time and I would miss this old girl. She had kept me safe and sound and I would carry the memories of her for the rest of my life.
The time before dawn when the stars are still visible and the light of a new day is about to break is one of my favorite times at sea. The slight rocking of the ship as it was gently pushed by ocean waves created a meditative rhythm. I contemplated what was ahead for my life when we docked the ship and departed with our war gear.
I had put my car in storage for six months on the amphibious base in Coronado as I would do on many occasions in the future. Like all good SEAL’s I wanted to operate and get back into a platoon as soon as possible. I was no longer a F__ing new guy and I was ready to prove myself as a seasoned operator.
After we were back for a few days it became evident that the next platoon was already full. BUD/S was starting to churn out new SEAL’s at a growing rate. It was the dawn of a new era. I would eventually become part of SEAL Team Five and the era of UDT would set forever. The mission of SEAL’s deploying on ships has not gone away and still exists today but the name and the level of training and capabilities has increased.
We were off for a few days and all the guys of my platoon dispersed into departments, got out of the service or moved on to new commands and new opportunities.
I was looking for a place to rent in Coronado which is difficult because they get snatched up quick. After just a week of being back all the commands on the strand were called into the large multi use classroom at UDT-12. We were all briefed by a SEAL officer from the experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, Florida about a new study for extending the new Drager rebreathing dive tables. They needed volunteers from the teams for several months worth of studies. We were told that you would get partial extra money everyday for food and live in Condo’s on the beach.
The caveat was that during these experimental dives in a controlled wet tank environment you may suffer seizures from oxygen toxicity at depth. When this was first put out most of the crowd laughed out loud at the idea that they would volunteer for being Guinea pigs for circumspect results.
In my mind, with my hard hat diving background I considered this one of those good deals of a lifetime. I was the only one from UDT-12 to volunteer and one of only four other guys from the West coast teams that would join me on this adventure.
I put my car back in storage and headed out two days later for Florida. Most of the guys that showed up for this dive experiment were East coast SEALs. I knew none of the guys other than a couple of the SEAL Team One guys I had partied with briefly in the Philippines during one of my Platoons brief stops there earlier that year. We had a total of about twenty guys. The Two senior enlisted SEALs that were at the experimental dive unit would assist us in the diving.
The diving day was broken up into groups of divers that would each dive either in the morning or afternoon. Some days you would dive and some days you would be a tender or would sit on a stainless steel bench out of the water and keep an eye on your assigned buddy. This was for safety in case he suffered from the effects of O2 toxicity.
We were thoroughly briefed on the physiological effects of O2 at depth and how the study was calculated through careful scientific analysis to be safe. We were the last evidence that the scientists needed in the equation to make the new tables a reality.
When SEAL’s are on combat dives they need to stay undetected just below the water to their target. It could be a ship that is going to be sunk with mines, a ship that is to be boarded, or a sneak attack behind enemy lines. Going too deep into the water causes pure O2 to become toxic to the body. The ideal dive depth that was safe was between fifteen and twenty feet. Any deeper and you ran the risk of a worst case seizure. Not a good thing when you are trying to be stealthy.
We already knew that we could safely make excursions to deeper depths. The reason for this might be enemy search boats passing close by or the unknown or unpredictable ship passing by. You had to get deep enough when this happened to not get sucked up into the props of a passing ship and become hamburger meat.
We were going to calculate the safe limits of sustained dives for as long as several hours with excursions to deeper depths for several minutes periodically throughout the dive.
For the first several weeks we got comfortable with the schedule and working with each other.
It was late January and although warmer than most of the US during this time frame it was still chilly in the morning and evenings. We were in the pan handle of Florida and in the spring time this place would be packed. Spring breakers from colleges all over the country would flock to this area and the parting would be off the charts. Now it was subdued and the huge bars and night clubs on the beach were almost empty even on friday and saturday nights.
I was at one of these bars on a Friday night at a place called the Spinnaker Beach Club. The club was exceptional with great views of the ocean and a huge dance floor and stage for concerts. It was fairly immense and labyrinthine with different bar areas throughout a building that could hold several hundred people at one time.
I was dancing with some girls and one of my new East coast SEAL buddies. We were having a great time hanging out. The two Florida locals told me that I was a great dancer and should dance with their friends on ladies night at the club. “What do you mean?” I asked. “They are male strippers!” they said. They both said they would be glad to introduce me to the head of the group who they were good friends with and who also owned the biggest fitness gym in town. I thought, what the heck, why not give it a try. It could be fun having women screaming and going wild while I shook my bootie around on stage. What red blooded male wouldn’t like that?
Ever since I was a teenager growing up in Columbia, SC the girls had lined up to watch me dance with other girls. I had some good moves and the ladies liked them. I was super fit after having gone through SEAL training and was always in the gym even when I was growing up. It just might be feasible that I could pull this off.
I worked out at the owners gym in town a couple of days later with the girls from the club. The gym was packed with beautiful, fit Florida girls. Something about lots of sunshine and the beach life does wonders for people. I met the gym owner and head of the Dance group. He was a successful bodybuilder and had won several bodybuilding shows. His trophies were all over the gym on display. He told me that they didn’t normally take outsiders but had seen me working out and his friends had talked me up so he would give me a shot in a couple of nights on ladies night that thursday night!
I’m normally an introvert. You wouldn’t know it by this point but it’s true. I would be just as happy curled up at home on a friday night with a good book reading to my lady love as being out on the town. But as my teammates would often say we were young, dumb and full of …it. Dancing was my outlet for many years and now I would get the opportunity to fully express that creative aspect of me.
I would like to say my first dance was amazing and a big hit but alas it was not so perfect. I’d had a suit made in Hong Kong that I brought with me on the trip. I didn’t know how to tie a neck tie at the time. All mine growing up had been the pre-tied type that you just clip on. One of my SEAL buddies tied one for me and I had it so I could slip it over my head and around my neck and then tighten it. I was a little nervous for my first strip show. Fortunately the crowds were not large yet. Just a few dozen women for my first stage performance. It took all my SEAL courage to got on stage and start stripping it off. We would do a set of two songs. I eventually learned that you slowly strip your clothes off during the first set and then really get into the sexy dancing on the second song.
The first song of my first set as a male exotic dancer had me striping that suit off to the cheers of the crowd pretty quick. I was doing all right until I got to that damn tie. It would not come loose for nothing? I even tried to elicit help from some ladies in the crowd but they couldn’t free that sucker either. I ended up wearing it around my neck the whole time. Didn’t seem to matter to the ladies though. They filled my swim suit briefs with money. Payday!
I got to be good friends with the other guys in the group. The other two guys were hard working construction men that worked out at the bodybuilders gym. All of them except me of course had grown up and lived all their lives in Panama City, Fl. There were four of us total. The head guy would come out and do poses as a bodybuilder which was his also his stage name. The announcer would call out ladies please give a warm welcome for the “The Bodybuilder!” His girlfriend was drop dead gorgeous and was always by his side. She was the only female that was allowed in the VIP section where we would change and watch each other perform. She always had good advice for us and watched over us like a mother lion.
The Bodybuilder decided I needed a stage name and called me “The Snake” because of my mesmerizing moves. It was lots of fun. My SEAL buddies loved it because I started getting a following amongst the local women. Whenever I went anywhere in town with my friends they thought they were male strippers also and were an instant attraction.
My friends also loved to hear my stories. I have been to strip clubs and watched women strip and it is nothing like what happens in a male review. Men sit around quietly mesmerized by women strippers. Women are a completely different story in a male review and get totally wild and scream with complete abandon. We had to be escorted by bouncers to the stage so that we didn’t get mauled by the women. Bouncers also had to be right there along the stage to keep women form leaping up and grabbing us. Eventually when it got to spring break the bar was filled with hundreds of women screaming as if they are going to loose their minds.
I got pretty creative on stage towards the end of my trip at the Spinnaker. It was funny how I came up with this idea because it was a team effort from my SEAL buddies. We would discuss my previous stage performances from the prior week and it was decided that i should do a performance with a wet suit on. It was a cool looking wetsuit with lots of zippers so I could easily remove it. One of my SEAL buddies lent me his speargun for the show for added effect.
I came from the ocean side door to the stage as if I had come right out of the ocean for my performance. It was dark inside and I slithered through the crowd as the ladies shouted with delight. The music was thumping out the beginning of my set. Strobe lights and multicolored accent lights spun and twisted to the raw beat of the music. I reached the stage in my black rubber and started to move my body in time to the music. Slow undulations followed by rhythmic thrusts of my hips to the pounding beat. The club was full of hundreds of women. The energy was electric and hot.
I found to my amazement as I danced around that if I thrust the spear gun at someone they would react as if I had sent a bolt of electricity at them. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to work the crowd around the stage with my magic talisman. I would point the spear during a cresendo in the music or a strong beat and shrieks of pleasure would erupt. I had the whole area around the stage going wild.
Another benefit that my friends quickly learned to exploit was to tell the bouncers at the door they were my friends. On ladies night a line of men a mile long would be waiting outside the Beach Club during our male review. My SEAL friends would be the first in the door and get instantly snatched up by hot women. Everyone should have this much fun.
It was a few weeks into the experimental diving that a SEAL Team One guy named Dave had a Grand Mal seizure. I wasn’t there that morning but the guys that were said it was brutal to watch. They were really shook up. When an O2 toxicity event happens all the muscles fire at once. The body goes ridged and you can loose consciousness. Not a good thing to happen if you are on a combat mission. The only way to treat it is to get the diver to the surface and have them breath fresh air. If this happened then the enemy would probably be alerted if you were close to the target. We had all made the decision internally that that wouldn’t happen.
Several of the volunteers found out after Dave’s seizure that their commands needed them and un-volunteered themselves. This left the rest of us with the need to do more dives. For me this was no problem because I love diving. It’s like a meditation to me. Focusing on your breath, weightless like in space, just your thoughts to entertain you. I would end up doing more dives than anyone else during the experiment which was ok by me.
We began to increase the depth and time at depth during out multi hour dives. A typical combat dive can take three to four hours underwater. Several times during the dive you may have to make deeper excursion than the safe depth of fifteen to twenty feet that you normally fly at. As you cruised in closer to the target area with the usual lights on piers or quay walls you needed to increase your depth into the deeper, darker levels of the water where the full spectrum of light rays don’t penetrate. If a search boat comes close by then you will have to dive down to stay undetected. If a ship goes overhead you must dive down to prevent you body from becoming ground hamburger meat in the propellers.
Diving deeper on O2 was always a grey area with only a few minutes allowed for these potential excursions. We were pushing the envelope so that future combat divers could comfortably dive deeper knowing that the tables had been scientifically explored to the ultimate level.
We started diving in cold water during the last weeks of the tests. The temperature of the water in the dive chambers could be adjusted up or down. They were very high tech and state of the art. It was during these dives that we would come off the dive with our lips swollen twice their size. This was due to the cold water exposure of our lips around our mouthpieces being exposed to the cold water. We increased the thickness of our wetsuit material but as we got pressed down on our excursions the added depth pressure shrank the thickness of our suits. You got really cold on these excursions and looked forward to going back up a few feet. Another thing that we had to deal with were wires we had to insert up our butts to monitor our core temperatures. The scientists were monitoring everything. If during an excursion they noticed a drop in core temp followed by a seizure they would take that into account. We all joked that they didn’t include the anal probes in our condos on the beach brief as we gritted our teeth and inserted the wires before our dives.
To simulate the energy expended on a normal dive we were positioned underwater with our shoulders in padded brackets and our feet strapped into bicycle peddles. We would peddle and turn resistant gears to simulate the work of swimming with fins. Our safety tender would sit on his platform with his legs crossed out of the water. One buddy of mine named Bill that was stationed at the Dive Unit brought his magnetic chess set and we would pass the board back and forth playing games for hours. He was in charge of the diving gear and as one of only a few dive supervisors in the group I helped checking the dive gear before dives. We got to be good friends.
I heard a loud commotion to my right on one of the cold water dives after we had pressed down on one of our deep excursions. I looked over and could see nothing but boiling bubbles. It was like the water you see when a wave is crashing and churns up the water. I could hear metallic sounds as if something was shaking a metal rod rapidly on the bottom of the tank. The underwater hydro phone came on and we were instructed to come to the surface and come off bag.
The water level of the control chamber was at a level that when you stood up from your underwater bike the water was at chest level. As my head broke the surface I could see the all black wet suits, drager dive rigs and face masks filled with inquisitive eyes.. I switched my mouthpiece valve on surface and took my mouthpiece out of my mouth like the rest of the divers. The tenders sitting on their benches were wide eyed and staring at the horror unfolding across the chamber. I looked right and saw Dave ridged as a board from head to feet. All the muscles of his body were firing at once like a machine-gun on full auto. Four guys were trying to help control him and were having trouble. Dave’s body had been shaking his bike so hard in his seizure that he broke the metal mounts. I’m still haunted to this day by the ancient Neanderthal guttural like sounds that came out of him. It was like unseen hands were trying to strangle him and he was resisting with every muscle fiber in his body.
The safety tenders moved him over to the center of the tank where a harness was lowered to haul him to the very top chamber reserved for emergencies. As he was hauled up by an electric winch he was still shaking and making those guttural sounds as the air was forced in and out of his lungs from his rapidly contracting chest muscles. Dave’s eyes were rolled back in his head and I was reminded of the Frankenstein movies I’d seen as a kid. I thought of the part as Dave continued upward still shaking where they hauled the monster creation up to be struck by lightening and brought to life.
We were informed that diving operations were canceled for the day. Like a group of monastery monks we exited the chamber with just the sound of water drops falling off our gear back down with a splash into the chambers water below.
Dave never did another dive during the rest of the diving experiment. It was a good thing because after two major seizures he was considered more susceptible. He was pretty loopy after that and when you asked him a question it took a little extra time for him to answer. He walked around in a daze mostly and we hoped he would pull out of it. He eventually got it together and when I was at SEAL Team Six many years later he was there with gold squadron. Bad luck followed him though and he had an accident while doing a combat mission during the Just Cause Panama invasion. I was on another side of the peninsula when I found out and just shook my head. At least he ended up getting a purple heart medal for this one.
The scientists determined that Dave was an anomaly and that the dive tables the rest of us had successfully tested were good for 99.9% of Navy divers using pure O2. Many people pay good money to breath pure Oxygen. It is rejuvenating and after a rough night it brings you right around. People pay even more money to be pressed down at depth in chambers breathing pure O2. Incurable skin deceases and life threatening infections have been treated and cured in O2 chambers. I was getting paid to do it.
With my Panama City adventure over I headed back to Coronado where I learned that I would be going into the diving department of SEAL Team Five. I would eventually become the diving department head and help start the first combat diving course.
Just a few months after that I would be hand selected to start SEAL Team Five’s first training course. It was one of those destiny shaping periods in my life and one that I fondly remember with pride. I will speak of this time and my first SEAL Platoon in the next chapter.